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For some time now, technology – specifically Information Technology and ITes – IT enabled services – have been central to India’s business stream and economy. India continues to be a preferred global destination for investments in this particular sector. Mobile telephony continues to get better with each passing day as more consumers join the already burgeoning pool of mobile phone users. The power to connect with the world, literally, is in virtually everyone’s hands. With the largest telecom network in the world, a subscriber base that stands at a staggering 1,189.08 million as of August, 2018 and tele-density, or telecom penetration that has grown from a modest 18.23% in fiscal year 2007 to a whopping 92.84% in 2018 - these are exciting times for the Indian technology landscape.

Nowhere is this more evident but in the country’s mobile telephone scenario. Two decades ago, mobile phones were the preserve of a privileged few in India whereas today you would hardly find anyone without a mobile phone in urban India. However, it is important to note that albeit India is urbanising at a fast rate the bulk of the population (67%) still resides in rural areas, which not only highlights greater potential for the mobile economy, but is also a reminder of the lack of infrastructure in villages that could speed up mobile proliferation. Despite this, the mobile telephone sector is going only way – up. According to Statista, the online provider of market and consumer data, the number of mobile phone users in India is likely to touch 813 million in 2019. By 2022, smartphone users, are expected to reach 829 million - according to CISCO’s “Visual Networking Index (VNI)” Report. What this means is simple: Today, India is more networked than at any other point in time in its history, and the numbers are not slowing down.The impact of these on socio-political and economic lives of Indians is yet to be studied.

The Indian telecom and Internet market is dominated by key players such as Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL), Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL), Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Reliance. Of these leading companies MTNL and BSNL are owned by the government while Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Reliance are privately owned. The youngest of the three, Reliance Jio telecom service stepped into the telecommunication market with a slew of benefits for the consumers and a host of attractive plans in 2016 and quickly became one of the bigger players in the market. According to the KPMG Report 2018: ‘Media Ecosystem – The walls fall down’, the immense rise of media consumption through mobile telephones in India can be associated with the introduction of Reliance Jio. Furthermore a study of the Department of Telecom (DoT – A Government of India organization) revealed that mobile Internet rates plunged by 93% in the years between 2014 and 2017 while data usage went up by over 25 times during the same period. By 2018, Reliance Jio had slashed data rates to as low as INR Rs. 4 / 0.005 USD per GB per day. It eventually set off a turf war in pricing among the different operators in the country. Reliance Industries Chairman, Mukesh Ambani, while launching Reliance Jio, had spoken of dedicating it to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of ‘Digital India”. He is reported to have said, “Supply of oxygen for digital life should be affordable. Data is oxygen for digital life”. Ambani is also reported to have remarked that Reliance Jio will allow digital life to the fullest. Today, as the numbers for mobile phones, data usage, and pay content subscriptions register exponential growth, what is true, is that Indians are, indeed, living a life online, and living it to the fullest. Inexpensive mobile Internet was, clearly, central to the unbridled proliferation of mobile phones. Data on the go presented numerous opportunities to live a life online. From ordering food through food apps, online shopping, paying bills online, to watching movies and shows online – everything became not only possible, but central to people’s lives. Over the past 4 years, 2014-2018, the number of social media users has more than doubled, see the infograph below.

The arrival of Over-The-Top (OTT) providers made this even more interesting. Over-The-Top providers, who stream paid video content via internet, directly without having to subscribe to traditional satellite television or other television distribution networks. Global industry leaders such as Apple, Netflix, Amazon Prime among others have launched their services in India. Domestic market leaders such as ALTbalaji, Hotstar premium, and Saavn are gaining popularity as well. For the OTT providers such as ZEE5, JioTV, VOOT, Netflix, Amazon Prime and ALTBalaji, the recent technological progress has had a crucial impact on the success of online streaming with increased online subscriptions for the content by various OTT providers. With such a large subscriber base available for takers, social media giant Facebook, launched Facebook Free Basics in partnership with Reliance Mobile in 2015 – a free mobile Internet service enrobed in a philanthropic purpose of ‘connecting India’s poor’ for better opportunities online. However, the app would provide only certain internet services within the package handpicked by Facebook – that did not go well with tech entrepreneurs, journalists and activists. This gave rise to the issue of net neutrality and the Save the Internet movement. TRAI – Telecom Regulatory Authority of India – opened a public discussion on net neutrality in March 2015 and by early 2016 ruled in favour of net neutrality, making free basics illegal in India. In its Consultation Paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services” TRAI defined Net Neutrality to mean that TSPs (Telecom Service Providers) must treat all internet traffic on an equal basis, no matter its type or origin of content or means used to transmit packets. The Department of Telecommunications issued a Regulatory Framework on Net Neutrality on 31st July, 2018 and is to be the monitoring and enforcement institution to ensure net neutrality.

With all such concerns now out of the way, India can brace for a longer life online, as the country waits to welcome 5G phones in 2019. With a promise of significantly increased speeds, stable network and better network response, 5G technology will surely bring a sea of change in mobile Internet habits of consumers and unlike 3G and 4G India is preparing to roll out 5G services simultaneously with other countries by 2020. Although the 5G devices are being produced and steadily introduced to the market the countries’ digital ecosystems need to be developed accordingly. In India the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) set up a development centre for 5G at IIT Madras in order to create the much-needed ecosystem. However, after previously bruising other telco providers with its free trial and cheap data offerings throughout its entrance into the telco market Reliance Industries seems to be steps ahead of Airtel and Vodafone Idea in preparations for the upcoming 5G. As per several news articles Reliance Jio Infocomm is the only telco operator in India which is ready to launch 5G services right after the spectrum has been auctioned off by the government for next generation networks which is planned for late 2019. In comparison to Jio, Airtel and Vodafone Idea reportedly seek for postponing the launch of 5G. As already experienced throughout the past years enormous advantages of a single company like Jio can propel a major step forward for the digital landscape of India, yet come at a cost of endangering a healthy competition within the market.

It can be expected that the following years will entail revolutionary changes within the technological world and it remains to be seen not only how India will perform in this global race but also who will arise as the big winner, who might get lost along the way and how these changes will transform the industry.

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